Away All Boats

Beale Street Landing is missing a key ingredient.



Beale Street Landing, the Riverfront Development Corporation's $30 million project at Beale Street and Riverside Drive, has a serious problem before it even opens.

The riverboat cruise business is disappearing. The Majestic America Line steamboat company in Seattle is going out of business. Two years ago, Majestic America acquired the New Orleans-based Delta Steamship Company and three steamboats — the Delta Queen, the American Queen, and the Mississippi Queen — that docked in Memphis en route to Cincinnati, New Orleans, and Baton Rouge. That leaves RiverBarge Excursion Line and its floating barge hotel as the only overnight touring boat on the river.

A statement posted on Majestic America Line's website says: "At this time, Majestic America Line has completed the 2008 cruise season. Several credible parties have expressed an interest in acquiring some and/or all assets of Majestic America Line and building upon our efforts in delivering unique cruise experiences that celebrate American history, culture and our magnificent waterways. Due to sale plans, Majestic America Line will not be operating cruises in 2009 or beyond."

There is no reason for optimism, however. The 80-year-old Delta Queen, which is made out of wood, is forbidden by federal regulations from making overnight cruises. And the recession has hammered tourism companies and the stock market. The parent company of Majestic America Line is Ambassadors International of Newport Beach, California, a publicly traded company whose stock has fallen from $16 to 74 cents in one year.

"Our investment in the domestic riverboat business was a very bad investment," Ambassadors CEO Joe Ueberroth told reporters and analysts recently. "We flat-out got it wrong. Our investment in the domestic river cruise business has caused deterioration of shareholder value and has put a real strain on the other three good businesses within Ambassadors."

The Delta Queen, American Queen, and Mississippi Queen are now docked in New Orleans. Could one of them find a new home in Memphis as a floating museum and day-tripper at a bargain-basement price?

"I am obviously concerned [about being able to sell the vessels] due to current economic conditions, the state of our financial markets, and the lack of available financing," Ueberroth said before he resigned as CEO. "We're preparing to lay up our vessels for an extended period if necessary."

The man had obviously never been to Memphis.

The Majestic America announcement means the Riverfront Development Corporation (RDC) is building a giant dock when there are no replicas of steamboats, which is sort of like building an airport when there are no jets. Beale Street River Park would be a more accurate name than Beale Street Landing. Beale Street River Pork would be even more accurate in light of RDC officials' repeated insistence that the oft-criticized project made sense because of $10.5 million in federal and state funds.

Local taxpayers are footing $19.5 million of the cost of the project, which is under way at the north end of Tom Lee Park.

From the inception of the RDC, steamboats were a fundamental part of its vision and reason for being, as evidenced by renderings on its website that show paddle wheelers next to the dock. At one time, the RDC hoped to lure the headquarters of the Delta Steamship Company to Memphis. When that fell through, the RDC continued to hold out hope for steamboat traffic.

"Because the Beale Street Landing project is under design, the former Delta Steamship Company has increased its dockings in Memphis by 40 percent," says the RDC website. "They are trying to build their market here in anticipation of the docking facility."

The RDC website also says "approximately 50 stops are made by three major vessels each year ... a modern docking facility is needed along our waterfront."

The lone survivor, RiverBarge Excursion Line, has been docking at the Mud Island River Park boat ramp in the Wolf River Harbor. The company touts its Memphis-St. Louis trip as an adventure "From the Arch to the Pyramid":

"Two monuments, standing like sentinels on the banks of the mighty Mississippi River, represent humankind's ability to tame harsh environments and build impressive civilizations."

Not to mention wasteful and failed projects.

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